The Book of Ruth, which was just read in synagogues around the world on the Festival of Shavuot, offers a canonical story of a Jew by choice and a powerful narrative of migration that makes the book contemporary. The customary reading of the book pays attention to Ruth’s traditional female attributes of devotion/loyalty to her mother in law, Naomi. These qualities are etched in her poetic declaration as a Jew by choice, “for where you go, I will go, where you lodge, I will lodge; your people are my people, and your God is my God.” Ruth is clearly an agentive woman who takes on marriage with an Israelite migrant and after her husband’s death chooses to join her mother in law and opts to become a migrant in the land of Judah.
On Shavuot Jewish people traditionally read the Book of Ruth. As in many Jewish texts, The Book of Ruth can be understood in many ways. We can see Ruth as a metaphor for the Jewish people, accepting a peoplehood and a faith without really knowing what it entailed. We admire the story of Ruth and its portrayal of deep friendship and loyalty. Ruth is a true friend to Naomi despite the fact that Naomi felt hopeless and bitter. I have always appreciated the book and its pastoral backdrop and reference to the days that Jews lived closer to nature and the seasons. But this year I realized something very different. Ruth and Naomi were poor. Returning to Bethlehem widowed, homeless and weak they experienced all the insecurities and humiliations of poverty. Their futures were bleak. They were vulnerable, hungry and alone.
“You shall dwell securely in your land.
And I will grand peace in the land and you shall lie down untroubled;
And I will give you respite from vicious beasts and no sword shall cross your land.
You shall pursue your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword.
Five of you shall give chase to a hundred and a hundred of you shall give chase to ten thousand;
Your enemies shall fall before you by the sword.” (Leviticus 26:6-8)
The promise of peace and security in the land is the second in a set of blessings in Leviticus, and it comes right after the blessing for agricultural abundance—timely rain and rich crops. The opening of the blessing for peace comes right after the blessing for abundance —“you shall dwell securely in your land,” which is followed by the promise “I will grant peace in the land.” This in turn, is followed by an overall security, that is, a blessing for security against natural disasters (vicious beasts) and against invading armies (“and no sword shall cross your land) and then the blessing for victory over enemies, and the idea that few shall prevail against the many (five of your shall give chase to a hundred]. Thia idea of few against many has been transmitted and woven into the history of the people of Israel for centuries and throughout the generations.
I am in a signature store in Rochester N.Y. and I ask one of the employees about the fresh corn in the produce section. It is a high-end store and I admire the pile of the first of the season corn that I am about to buy. In front of this abundance a woman standing next to me says, “Where are you from? I noticed that you have an accent.” I have heard the question countless times since 1976 when I came to America as a graduate student. I say, “Where do you think I came from?” With a triumphant voice she says, “Russia.” I should have left it at that. Yet, being an anthropologist I am interested in the cultural assumptions that frame this recurrent encounter on accent and identity.
God is good; He’s made me a grandmother.
Live and be well, little man, grow big, grow strong.
Just when I think I’m too weary to bother
and too old to start over, you come along.
Such pleasure in the house! Who would have thought
that widow harvest Boaz gathered in
was ripe for joy, or that your little heart
could make my bitter blood run sweet again.
You’re a blessed miracle–ask your mommy,
singing to herself like a nesting bird.
When my friends say a son’s born to Naomi
she smiles at me and never says a word.
“You shall not curse the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind, you shall fear your God, I am God.” (Leviticus 19:14)
“You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old, you shall fear your God, I am God.” (19:32).
“Do not wrong one another, but fear your God for I Adonai am your God” (25:17)
“Do not exact (from the poor) advance or accrued interest, fear your God” (25”36)
“You shall not ruthlessly rule over (the slave), fear your God” (25:43)
The cautionary words “fear your God” appears only five times in Torah, and all five are in Leviticus (19, 25); all outline obligations (mitzvoth) of relations between people, in Hebrew, ben Adam lahavero; more specifically and significantly all spell out the duties and obligations to the powerless, the marginalized, those with disabilities: the deaf, the blind (literally and in the broader sense) the elderly, the stranger, the poor and the slave.
There was an article in Ha’aretz yesterday by Naomi Daron, “An Odyssey from Birthright to the BDS Movement,” an account of how the jingoism of the Birthright movement has turned many young Jews in the opposite direction, and has led them to question and challenge some of their assumptions about the conflict between Israel and Palestine. The most striking quote from the article is from a young 24-year old American, who climbed with his birthright group up Masada, and when he got there the group leader made the following statement. He said he had Italian neighbors “and they’re wonderful, but if I had to decide whether to save their lives or the life of one Jew, I would choose to save the Jew. If I had to choose to save 100 non-Jews or one Jew, I would save the Jew.” And I am told that that the English version of his article is bowdlerized, and the Hebrew extended the comments—the Birthright leader on Masada continued to raise the stakes—1000 non-Jews vs one Jew, concluding that he would rather save the life of a single Jew than all the victims of the Japanese tsumani in 2006. (Please Ha’aretz, fully translate your articles into English.)
The first step in solving any social problem is learning how to pay attention and to observe what is happening. To be an ordinary citizen, one must become an anthropologist or historian, detached enough to try to evaluate the situation without preconceived prejudices, but someone who deeply cares enough about it to really try and understand it carefully. Or to put this another way, in every social situation, besides the participants and protagonists, there are observers, who usually are content to sit on the sidelines and watch.